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Friday, July 30, 2010

Does this look like the shit-eating grin of the newest Fulham manager?

It seems like it took forever, especially with the EPL season barely two weeks away, but Fulham finally named a manager: Mark Hughes.

The former Manchester City boss also signed a two-year deal with the Cottagers.

Hughes has a tough act to follow since Roy Hodgson (now at Liverpool) led Fulham to the Europa League final in May, their best tournament finish in team history.

Furthermore, Hughes was last seen getting dumped (or sacked as the English love to say) by Manchester City in December 2009.

''I would like to welcome Mark Hughes to Fulham. I know that he understands my vision for the Club, and believes in what we want achieve,'' Fulham chairman Mohammed Al-Fayed told the Fulham website.

''We have enjoyed two incredibly successful years, and my hopes and dreams for this club are for that journey to continue. I am confident that with his Premier League and National Team successes, Mark will be a great guy for the job.''

Hughes also revealed his joy at getting the job, telling the site: ''I am happy to have joined Fulham following much speculation regarding the appointment of a new Manager. I have discussed my aspirations with both the Chairman and Alistair Mackintosh and believe that we are aligned in our aims for what can realistically be achieved here.

''I am joining on the back of two of the most successful seasons in the Club's history, and that in itself brings with it the challenges of expectation and ambition. I am confident that with some additions to the squad, hard work and commitment, we can move this Club forward in the right direction.

''I hope the Fulham fans will enjoy some special times during this season's campaign and we will work hard to achieve that. I'm looking forward to working with the squad as soon as possible, and in making sure the on-pitch preparations are complete before the first competitive ball is kicked in August.''

Personally, I will always have a real connection with Fulham since they're the EPL team I saw most when I was in London (three or four times) and they've been a revolving door for U.S. players.

One of our best and brightest-Clint Dempsey-is currently there so we'll all be paying attention to see that Hughes doesn't get into a spat with Dempsey or anything silly like that.

Bradley to pick 24-man roster for Brazil next week

U.S. coach Bob Bradley will announce his 24-man roster for the U.S.-Brazil friendly (on August 10) next week.

The game takes place at the New Meadowlands in East Rutherford, N.J. and there's a good chance either Shimer or I or both of us will be there since we just sent in our media credential forms. We'll keep you posted about that as the match gets closer.

Bradley's contract runs through the end of the year, and the U.S. Soccer Federation has not said whether it will offer a new deal to Bradley, who coached the Americans to a second-round finish in this year's World Cup.

Team spokesman Michael Kammarman said a Monday or Tuesday roster announcement was likely.

Bradley is expected to pick mostly veterans for the match.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Where are they now: Raul headed to Germany

Stop me if you've heard this one before: washed up player, seeks new challenges in a foreign land.

No I'm not talking about another European coming to MLS, that general statement covers Raul Gonzalez. The former Real Madrid and Spain star is headed to Germany's Schalke, after signing a two-year deal yesterday.

With Spain's Euro 2008 title and 2010 World Cup trophy, it's easy to forget how dominant Raul was when the national team wasn't at quite the level it is today.

He joined Schalke on a free transfer, after spending his entire pro career (15 years) with Real Madrid.

"I'm looking forward to starting on a new challenge," Raul said. "It's an important challenge for me."

Coach Felix Magath, who secured Raul's agreement on Tuesday evening, said it was "great news for Schalke."

"I'm glad that we succeeded in enthusing such an exceptional footballer and world-class goal scorer about a move to the Bundesliga and to Schalke," Magath said. "His signing is a decisive step in our efforts to strengthen and restructure the squad."

Schalke had a gap to fill in its attack after Kevin Kuranyi left for Dynamo Moscow at the end of last season. Kuranyi's 18 goals helped the club to a second-place finish in the Bundesliga behind Bayern Munich, qualifying it for Champions League play.

Raul is Schalke's second signing from Real Madrid in the offseason, joining former Germany defender Christoph Metzelder, who spent three injury-filled seasons at Madrid and saw little playing time.

Raul announced his departure from Real Madrid on Monday.

"I want to experience another type of football, a different culture -- that's an important challenge in life," he said at the time. "German or English football -- those are the only two places I would go ... my motivation is to keep playing football."

Raul was mostly relegated to the bench at Madrid following a spending spree by the club last summer.

At Real Madrid, Raul won three Champions League titles, six La Liga titles and two International Cups.

He leaves with 228 league goals for Madrid and a record 44 goals in 102 appearances for Spain, though he hasn't played for the national team since 2006.

Raul is also the leading scorer in UEFA competitions with 66 goals, including 64 in the Champions League.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Oh you expected Maradona's time with Argentina to have less drama?

Big news coming out of Argentina today as Diego Maradona will no longer be the coach of the national team.

This bizarre series of events follows the news a few weeks back that he was going to be staying on through the 2014 World Cup. Typical with Maradona, nothing is as simple as it seems and the man is a one-man circus. Why anybody expected things to be any other way is a great question?

His stint as coach of the Albiceleste ended far less successfully than his time as a player with the national team. The Argentine Football Association, which hired the former star in November 2008, said Tuesday that his contract will not be renewed. The decision came 3½ weeks after his team, led by star Lionel Messi, was eliminated from the World Cup with a humiliating 4-0 loss to Germany in the quarterfinals.

"Diego shut himself off to any change," executive committee member Luis Segura said on Argentine television. "Diego has all the right to do what he wants. But so does AFA."

The federation had offered Maradona a four-year contract through the 2014 World Cup, but Maradona said he would do so only if his entire staff remained.

That was unacceptable to AFA president Julio Grondona. He had asked for several assistants to be replaced, including Maradona's close friend Alejandro Mancuso. The federation said its executive committee unanimously decided to not keep Maradona.

AFA spokesman Ernesto Cherquis Bialo called the decision "very painful" but said there was no way to solve the impasse.

"The president said that there was a significant difference between what AFA wanted to achieve and Maradona's aspirations for the future," Cherquis Bialo said. "There was a wide gap, and it was impossible to narrow it."

The spokesman hinted, however, there might be a role in the future for a man with an unpredictable history.

"This marks the end of a first chapter with Mr. Maradona," Cherquis Bialo said. "The doors to this house, as always, will be open to him."

Youth team manager Sergio Batista was appointed interim coach for the Aug. 11 exhibition at Ireland, which will be followed by a Sept. 7 home exhibition against world champion Spain. Possible permanent successors include two club coaches in Argentina: Alejandro Sabella of Estudiantes and Miguel Russo of Racing.

Asked about the full-time coach, Cherquis Bialo said: "The people who were in the meeting have no name in their imaginations. It has just been announced that the contract with the coach will not be renewed. And so, a new stage begins."

You've gotta admire the fan-boy tendencies and blind loyalty by the AFA. Basically, they're saying that they'll let Diego go chill for a couple years but if they don't see immediate results, he'll make his triumphant return in a few years and we'll forget this whole charade ever existed. Got it?

In his final act, Maradona selected Argentina's roster for an exhibition against Ireland on Aug. 11.

Messi, Higuain and Javier Mascherano lead the selections, who will be coached by Batista.

Several players left off the World Cup team were picked, including midfielders Jesus Datolo and Fernando Gago, and forward Ezequiel Lavezzi.

The roster:

Goalkeepers: Mariano Andujar (Catania, Italy), Sergio Romero (AZ Alkmaar, Netherlands)

Defenders: Nicolas Burdisso (Inter Milan, Italy), Fabricio Coloccini (Newcastle, England), Martin Demichelis (Bayern Munich, Germany), Gabriel Heinze (Olympique Marseille, France), Emiliano Insua (Fiorentina, Italy), Walter Samuel (Inter Milan, Italy), Pablo Zabaleta (Manchester City, England)

Midfielders: Ever Banega (Valencia, Spain), Mario Bolatti (Fiorentina, Italy), Datolo (Espanyol, Spain), Angel Di Maria (Real Madrid, Spain), Gago (Real Madrid, Spain), Jonas Gutierrez (Newcastle, England), Mascherano (Liverpool, England), Javier Pastore (Palermo, Italy), Maxi Rodriguez (Liverpool, Liverpool)

Forwards: Sergio Aguero (Atletico Madrid, Spain), Higuain (Real Madrid, Spain), Lavezzi (Napoli, Italy), Messi (Barcelona, Spain), Diego Milito (Inter Milan, Italy), Tevez (Manchester City, England)

Where will Jozy Altidore end up?

Following up the good news about Cherundolo, we catch up with one of the U.S.' biggest disappointments from the 2010 World Cup: Jozy Altidore.

We all know that Jozy didn't not have one capable partner up front so it's not all his fault that he scored a grand total of zero goals but considering the chance against England that hit the post and the countless other opportunities, that wasn't good enough.

Looking ahead, Altdiore appears likely to transfer from Villarreal after his stint with Hull in the EPL last season.

Ajax, Besiktas and Fenerbahce have shown interest in acquiring him in addition to Premier League clubs, and a loan and permanent transfer both are possibilities for the 20-year-old American forward.

Like all the U.S. national team players, our hope for Altidore is that 1) wherever he goes he plays and 2) he plays against the highest caliber of opponents that he possibly can. Altidore has the potential to be one of the greatest players and top goal-scorers in U.S. history if he properly develops.

He is due to start preseason training with Villarreal on Aug. 3.

"A lot of the top clubs around Europe have been in touch, and we're just looking at what's the best for Jozy's career at this point," his agent, Lyle Yorks, said Tuesday in a telephone interview. "It's important to find a home for himself where he's going to get games, continue to develop and really show his abilities."

The European transfer window remains open through Aug. 31, but the Premier League opens Aug. 14 and La Liga on Aug. 28.

'We're not trying to rush into anything at this point," Yorks said. "There are advantages to getting it done early because you obviously have a longer preseason to get into the team, but it's important to get the right fit."

Yorks said he had had discussions with two Premier League clubs he wouldn't identify. Fulham also has held discussions about Altidore, pending a decision on hiring a manager to replace Roy Hodgson, who left the Cottagers to become Liverpool's manager.

Altidore was acquired by Villarreal from Major League Soccer and the New York Red Bulls in June 2008 for about $10 million. He became the first American to score in La Liga but played just six matches before he was loaned to second-division Xerez at midseason. He didn't get into another game that season, then was loaned to Hull for 2009-10.

"If it's a full transfer, then the transfer would have to be agreeable with Villarreal," Yorks said. "They spent quite a bit to get him. If it's a loan, then the pressure's off a little bit."

Yorks appears to be the Scott Boras or Ari Gold of American soccer players as he also updated the contract situations of Clint Dempsey, Oguchi Onyewu, DaMarcus Beasley, Benny Feilhaber and Clarence Goodson.

Clint Dempsey, another client, reported back to Fulham following the World Cup, where he scored the U.S. goal in the 1-1 tie against England. Fulham said last August it had extended Dempsey's contract through the 2012-13 season but the 27-year-old may have options to consider.

Yorks said since the World Cup there had been inquiries about Dempsey from fairly large clubs in Italy, Germany and France, and from another Premier League team. The interest levels varied.

"He's prepared to start the season with Fulham, and if there's a right scenario that presents itself where it made sense for the club and for Clint, then he would certainly entertain that," Yorks said.

Defender Oguchi Onyewu intends to remain with AC Milan, a team he joined last summer. Onyewu was limited to one competitive game for the club last season because of a knee injury and in May extended his contract for a season until June 2013 at no extra cost.

"At this point, he's definitely set on staying there," Yorks said. "Various clubs have called regarding a loan situation, but because he missed last season, he's obviously keen to start the situation in Milan."

Yorks and his agent group also are trying to find a new club for midfielder DaMarcus Beasley, who left Glasgow Rangers. Yorks said he's exploring the possibility of new deals for midfielder Benny Feilhaber, who is with Denmark's Aarhus, and defender Clarence Goodson, who plays for Norway's IK Start.

Cherundolo named captain of Hannover

It didn't get any publicity since the rest of the defense was awful for most of the tournament but can you name an American (other than Landon Donovan) who had a better 2010 World Cup than Steve Cherundolo? Tim Howard is the next closest but I'd say he's at best a push.

By design, the position of fullback is probably soccer's least glamorous but in my mind, Cherundolo was solid in all four games. He was strong defensively and he was also fearless in terms of making runs forward and serving crosses into the box.

A 31-year-old San Diego native, Cherundolo has played in the Bundesliga with Hannover since 1999 and he was appointed team captain this week as they train for their upcoming season (kicks off August 21). He's the team's longest tenured player.

The club says on its website that coach Mirko Slomka gave Cherundolo the captain's armband during the Bundesliga team's training camp this week in Bad Radkersburg. Former captain Hanno Ballitsch left the team for Bayer Leverkusen in the offseason.

He recently signed a three-year contract extension and previously served as a deputy captain.

The team barely avoided relegation from the Bundesliga last season after bringing in Slomka as coach in January.

Brazil announces new coach, no-name squad set to take on U.S. Aug. 10

As a public service announcement, Shimer and I have been charging our batteries since the 2010 World Cup ended but we'll be back in full force over the next few weeks as we get ready for the European leagues to start up in mid to late August.

Brazil named a replacement for Dunga on Saturday, Mano Menezes. Today, the newly appointed coach named the 24-man roster he'll take with him to the New Meadowlands in East Rutherford, N.J. to take on the U.S. August 10th.

For international soccer as a whole, there won't be many more fascinating story lines than how Brazil (the team) prepares itself for the 2014 World Cup on its home soil. As we all know, they are the most famous team in soccer but they have bowed out in the quarterfinals during the last two World Cups. The pressure on Menezes (assuming he lasts that long) and his team will be immense as the Samba Boys try to get back to the top of the mountain.

"There are several ways of winning and I respect all of them," Menezes said. "I will try to choose the way that gives us the best chance of winning. If that can be done with the 'beautiful game' that everyone likes, it would be the best. We will try to get as close as possible to that."

Only four of the players picked were on Brazil's 23-man World Cup roster: Barcelona defender Daniel Alves, Benfica midfielder Ramires, AC Milan defender Thiago Silva and Santos forward Robinho, who is on loan from Manchester City.

Eleven players were summoned for the first time, and seven young enough to play in the 2012 Olympic under-23 tournament, a competition Brazil has never won.

Kaka, Luis Fabiano and goalkeeper Julio Cesar were not selected.

"It's the beginning of a renovation, with the goal being the 2014 World Cup and the (2012) London Olympics," Menezes said.

He accepted the Brazil job on Saturday, a day after Fluminense would not release Muricy Ramalho from his contract.

Menezes replaced Dunga, fired after Brazil's 2-1 loss to Netherlands in the World Cup quarterfinals.

"It's always difficult when Brazil loses, especially because we tend to think we are better than everybody else," Menezes said. "In the last two World Cup we were not, and we need to regain this form again. We still have the technical quality to do it."

Dunga's team achieved significant results ahead of the World Cup, but his defense-oriented tactics failed to gain his nation's sixth world title.

"Dunga's team was disciplined tactically and that was positive," Menezes said. "That's what I want for Brazil, to be well-organized tactically. Because with the talented players that we have, we will always have the capacity to win."

The roster:

Goalkeepers: Jefferson (Botafogo), Renan (Avai), Victor (Gremio)

Defenders: Andre Santos (Fenerbahce, Turkey), Daniel Alves (Barcelona, Spain), David Luiz (Benfica, Portugal), Henrique (Racing Santander, Spain), Marcelo (Real Madrid, Spain), Rafael da Silva (Manchester United, England), Rever (Atletico Mineiro), Thiago Silva (AC Milan, Italy)

Midfielders: Carlos Eduardo (Hoffenheim, Germany), Ederson (Lyon, France), Hernanes (Sao Paulo), Jucilei (Corinthians), Lucas Leiva (Liverpool, England), Paulo Henrique Ganso (Santos), Ramires (Benfica, Portugal), Sandro (Internacional)

Forwards: Andre (Santos), Neymar (Santos), Alexandre Pato (AC Milan, Italy), Robinho (Santos), Diego Tardelli (Atletico Mineiro)

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

a little taste of my GDT greatness

This is the story that I submitted to the Gloucester Daily Times and the Salem News. Enjoy.

Football at Fenway showcases old ballpark’s versatility

It might be a completely forgettable season full of injuries and underwhelming performances for the Boston Red Sox but you have to admit it’s been a great year for Fenway Park, their beloved home.

In the span of a little over a year, the fabled ballpark which was built in 1912 (second oldest remaining in MLB behind Chicago’s Wrigley Field) has hosted concerts by the Dave Matthews Band, the Winter Classic featuring the Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers on New Year’s Day, a college hockey game between bitter rivals Boston College and Boston University and then on Wednesday night it was the venue for the Fenway Football Challenge: Celtic FC (a Scottish club) against Sporting Lisbon (a Portuguese club).

Forward Georgios Samaras scored in the 71st minute for Celtic on a penalty kick which he had earned himself after being taken down in the Sporting box. Fenway shook when he put it in the net and it appeared about all 32,162 people in attendance took pictures with their cameras and phones at the same exact moment. Sporting forward Helder Postiga tied it in the 81st minute after his header into the vacated Celtic net followed a header off the crossbar by teammate Diogo Salomao.

Celtic won 6-5 on penalty kicks. Both teams amazingly enough went through their first five shooters with all of them scoring. Finally, Sporting’s Liedson skied one over the net and Paul McGowan, a Celtic substitute clinched it with a well-struck shot into the right corner.

“It was an honor to play here,” said Sporting Lisbon manager Paulo Sergio. “It was a little strange to play in a baseball stadium but from now on I’ll be curious about the Red Sox and the sport.”

The two goals were placed on the left field line (by where third base would be) and between the bullpens in the outfield. A layer of synthetic field turf was put over the Fenway grass and most of the infield. There were short advertisement boards down the sidelines and both teams sat on benches near midfield while the dugouts were empty. Every part of the park was open, just like it was a normal game day for the Red Sox and the vendors were selling the same overpriced food and drinks. However, the merchandise being sold was all soccer related.

Boston Bruins announcer Jack Edwards and former MLS player Brian Dunseth were broadcast partners for the live telecast on NESN from atop the Green Monster. There was a huge banner for Football at Fenway with both teams’ crests (logos). The Red Sox-A’s score was the only out of town score on the hand operated scoreboard in left field while the two soccer teams took up the main part with 1 and 2 representing halves rather than innings and check marks and x’s denoting made or missed penalty kicks.

Coming on the heels of the wildly popular 2010 World Cup in South Africa, not to mention the U.S.’ strong showing (winning their Group and losing in extra time to Ghana in the round of 16), this exhibition match seemed to come at exactly the right time as interest in soccer appears to be at an all-time high in both the United States and New England as well. The last time a soccer game was played at Fenway Park was in 1968 when Pele-soccer’s answer to Michael Jordan-participated in a match here against the Boston Beacons. Both Celtic and Sporting had players that had recently returned from South Africa and representing their home countries: Greek forward Georgios Samaras for Celtic and Portuguese midfielder Pedro Mendes for Sporting Lisbon both started the match.

If you think American sports have long seasons (and they do), get a load of European soccer schedules: the two clubs were using this tour of the U.S. as their preseason trip as they traveled across the country playing MLS teams and other European clubs before their regular season begins in mid-August. Depending on how far teams go in Champions League and other domestic cups, their seasons can last until mid-May. Soccer isn’t a winter sport in the colder parts of the U.S. but they play in the wind, rain and sometimes snow in Europe.

It was nearly impossible to find a Red Sox jersey or player t-shirt, a ubiquitous part of walking around Boston these days. Everywhere you looked at Fenway, there were few if any American sports jerseys in the park, most fans were wearing some soccer jersey of one team or another. Celtic was much more represented at the game than Sporting, which was a little surprising considering all the Portuguese living in New England. Then again, Boston has always been an Irish Catholic city so it makes sense.

One of the biggest differences between an American sports crowd and a European soccer crowd is the constant singing, chanting, hooting and hollering of the soccer diehards. The nauseating sounds of Sweet Caroline, a trademark experience of a Red Sox game during the seventh inning stretch were replaced by countless team and country specific songs.

All in all, it was a memorable summer night at Fenway and who knows when the next time will be that they have a soccer game here?

Both stories will be available on and later tonight.

Well that was a mess

Haha everything went downhill after I thought it was over at 1-1 through regulation time.

The penalty kicks were a blur and then I went to the Sporting press conference with Pedro Mendes, two assistants/translators then manager Paulo Sergio.

Naturally, the majority of the talking was done in Portuguese or broken English. I wanted to hear from Neil Lennon, the Celtic manager and some of his players but I had to hustle back up to the press box since I was also writing a story for my real job (the Gloucester Daily Times) and our deadline was minutes away.

Ugh. The players were only available outside as they ran to their buses so after the shitshow dealing with that following the Czech Republic vs. US game, I didn't even try.

I had an awesome time but there was simply too much going on here for one man to deal with. I need Shimer to be with me, our coverage is much better together rather than seperately.

I'm an idiot, Celtic wins 6-5 on penalty kicks

As I had read before, if it ended in a tie, it goes right to PKs.

1) made
2) made
3) made
4) made
5) made
6) Liedson skied it over

1) made
2) made
3) made
4) made
5) made
6) Paul McGowan wins it with a shot to the upper right

1-1 final for Celtic and Sporting Lisbon

A fitting way to end for a back and forth game. Both teams had their moments but ultimately they were evenly matched.

It's getting a little crazy in here

A guy just ran onto the field and got absolutely destroyed by a Fenway security guard who caught him on the blindside.

We're in injury time now with both teams still tied at 1.

Zaluska says what up

Wow, Sporting has really turned up the heat since they scored the tying goal. Zaluska just made a beautiful tip over the bar on a shot by Sporting. Celtic is reeling now and they just try to hang on for the draw.

1-1 in the 89th minute.

Sporting ties it up

Celtic goalkeeper Lukasz Zaluska just made a nice save that I was going to post about but then Sporting tied it up in the 81st minute as Helder Postiga headed in a rebound.

Diogo Salomao had a header go off the crossbar and Postiga was the first one there as he headed it into the vacant net.

1-1 in the 85th minute, finally some action.

1-0 Celtic

Samaras buried the penalty kick with a low, hard strike to the right hand corner of the goal.

1-0 Celtic in the 74th minute.

Fenway shook when he put it in the net, I think about 30,000 peopple were taking a picture at the same time too.

Samaras earns a PK

Samaras earned a penalty kick after he cut across a Sporting defender and had a clear path to the goal.

Liedson's shot deflected wide and out

Sporting forward Liedson took a decent shot that was deflected by a Celtic defender and went out of bounds. However, Sporting couldn't do anything with the ensuing corner kick.

Celtic had a good break on the counterattack but they seem to have no confidence in the attacking third. Neither team appears to have any firepower in terms of goal-scorers.

0-0 in the 70th minute.

Santos shoots over

Do you know what this game needs? A goal.

Sporting midfielder Andre Santos just shot over the net from outside the box. Hopefully somebody can get a goal in this game and it doesn't end 0-0, the perfect score for all the soccer haters.

0-0 in the 66th minute.

Someone just got booked for Celtic

It was hard to tell who it was but somebody on Celtic just picked up the first card of the game (a yellow) for a rash challenge on a Sporting player in the midfield.

Sorry for the JV operation here but I wasn't looking at the TV when it happened and by looking at the field I couldn't tell who it was.

0-0 in the 52nd minute.

Second half started

The second half has begun and Samaras nearly made it 1-0 Celtic with a header that was saved by Rui Patricio.

0-0 in the 49th minute, Celtic is charged up coming out of the cramped Fenway locker rooms.

0-0 at halftime

As usual, I was completely wrong in my prediction of a wide-open match. Both teams came out cautiously, especially Celtic and Sporting took it to them until the Scottish power finally woke up late in the first half.

It's 0-0 and that is the way it should be. Both teams have had a couple chances but neither have shown any ability to finish which isn't a surprise since this is their preseason. Say it with me, pre season.

Samaras volleys wide

Greek international and Celtic forward Georgios Samaras just volleyed wide of the Sporting net and the crowd let out its biggest roar of the night.

Patrick McCourt fed him the finely weighted ball.

Sporting just had a great chance but Celtic defender Glenn Loovens cleared a shot off the line after goalkeeper Lukasz Zaluska had been beaten.

0-0 in the 42nd minute.

PS. Samaras is a body double for Jesus now with his long hair and thick beard. Somewhere Johnny Damon weeps and remembers what he had.

Saleiro shoots wide

Sporting forward Carlos Saleiro just shot wide, their best chance so far and Celtic followed that with their best chance as forward Marc Fortune had his shot/cross kicked out for a corner by Sporting goalkeeper Rui Patricio.

0-0 in the 28th minute but it seems like things are finally opening up in what so far has been a dull friendly.

Sporting is dominating play

For the first 12 minutes, Sporting has pretty much run circles around Celtic. However the Hoops just had their first chance, a cross that didn't connect and Fenway went wild. I might have underestimated how pro-Celtic this crowd is: it seems like it's about 90%-10%.

Frankly, I am a little surprised since there's a ton of Portuguese in New England. I guess there's way more Irish catholics (duh) and wannabes.

0-0 in the 14th minute.

Twenty minutes away from kickoff

Both teams are warming up and fans are starting to file into Fenway Park, I can't imagine how packed the bars are around Fenway.

No surprise that Celtic jerseys outnumbered Sporting by a wide margin: probably 10 to 1.

Starting 11's:

Scott Brown midfielder
Georgios Samaras forward
Marc Fortune forward
Mark Wilson defender
Ki Sung Yueng midfielder
Patrick McCourt midfielder
Charles Mulgrew defender
Glenn Loovens defender
Lukasz Zaluska goalkeeper
Darren Odea defender
James Forrest midfielder

Sporting Lisbon:
Rui Patricio goalkeeper
Marco Torsiglieri defender
Pedro Mendes midfielder
Carlos Saleiro forward
Tonel defender
Matias Fernandez midfielder
Jaime Valdes midfielder
Leandro Grimi defender
Miguel Veloso midfielder
Simon Vukcevic forward
Abel forward

Since it's an exhibition and the field seems really small, I expect lots of scoring chances and not much rough play. Hopeflly each team can pop a few goals and both fan bases can go bananas and toast the good life.

Football at Fenway live blog

Check back in later tonight as I'll be going to Fenway Park to take in the scene of the Celtic FC vs. Sporting Clube match.

It should be a great atmosphere, I can't wait. It'll be on locally in New England on NESN, pre-game starts at 7:30 p.m. with the game kicking off at 8:00 p.m. Bat-shit crazy Bruins announcer Jack Edwards is calling the game for NESN so that's worth tuning in for by itself.

I plan on doing a live blog for the game and I'll be going to the press conferences afterwards so I'll share everything I see fit for the blog.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The gift that keeps on giving

What's that, you thought you'd heard the last of France's epic failure at the 2010 World Cup?

As Lee Corso would say, not so fast my friend! Today, Franck Ribery and Karim Benzema, two French national team players were issued preliminary charges for soliciting an underage prostitute.

This story surfaced right before the 2010 World Cup so it's not really going out on a limb to say it might have affected those players and the team in general.

Ribery and Benzema were questioned Tuesday as part of a probe into a suspected network of prostitutes that operated out of a nightclub on Paris' glitzy Champs-Elysees, a judicial official told The Associated Press. She was not authorized to be publicly named, according to office policy.

The scandal, which broke before the World Cup began June 11 and has been front-page news in France, includes allegations by a self-described escort girl who says Ribery flew her to visit him as a birthday present for himself when she was still under 18. Ribery is married with two children.

Real Madrid striker Benzema and Bayern Munich forward Ribery could face up to three years in prison and a $60,000 fine if found guilty of paying to have sex with a minor. They are among the most famous soccer players in France.

Both have denied any wrongdoing.

There are many more juicy details so read up on this if you're looking for a good summer trashy novel.

Vuvuzelas blow

I'm proud to say that for the entire 2010 World Cup, both Shimer and myself did well to not fall into the trap of the lazy American sports fan and writer: criticizing vuvuzelas.

Don't get me wrong, we don't love them either but I really didn't find them to be that much of a distraction during the games. A tell-tale sign of someone that never watches soccer jumping aboard the World Cup bandwagon was their first observation: "what's with those annoying horns?"

I bring this up not to simply toot our own horns (get it?) but since a bunch of English Premier League teams are banning the stupid plastic instruments.

The league itself hasn't made an official ruling yet but Tottenham, Arsenal, Birmingham, Everton, Fulham, Liverpool, West Ham and Sunderland have all banned them from their home parks.

"Following discussions with the police and representatives from the local licensing authorities, the club will not be permitting vuvuzelas or similar instruments into White Hart Lane on match days," Tottenham said. "We are concerned that the presence of the instruments within the stadium pose unnecessary risks to public safety."

"Vuvuzelas [are] not welcome at Emirates Stadium," Arsenal said. "This decision has been taken to ensure the enjoyment and safety of supporters on match days, which is of paramount importance to the club."

Birmingham said it consulted supporters and health and safety authorities before banning the trumpet, while Sunderland will turn away the vuvuzela because it does not permit any musical instruments into its Stadium of Light.

I've got friends in Loew places

Shimer is currently golfing and having a grand old time in Ohio with his relatives so I thought I should pass along some news that is normally right in his wheelhouse: Germany gave coach Joachim Loew a two-year extension.

I would assume that Shimer is in favor of that move and why not? Loew did a nice job with a very young team at the 2010 World Cup, finishing in third place. Let's see what he can do in Euro 2012 and then proceed from there.

"We had very uncomplicated talks," the 50-year-old Loew said Tuesday at a news conference at the football federation headquarters in Frankfurt. "We are very pleased to continue working with the team, we all had a lot of fun with the team during the World Cup."

Loew had been without a contract since the end of the tournament. Earlier talks on an extension stalled in February over several issues, including payment.

"Our team has an excellent future and it's a great challenge now to start preparing for the European Championship after the successful World Cup," Loew said.

"We are sure that the team can raise its international recognition through modern and attractive football," Loew said.

One thing he'll have to decide soon (namely before the August 11th friendly vs. Denmark) will be if Philipp Lahm keeps the captain's armband or if it goes back to Michael Ballack, who missed the 2012 World Cup with an ankle injury.

For me, it's time to move on as far as Ballack being captain; he can still on the team provided he's healthy but Lahm is a better choice now considering his age (26) and the fact that he's in the prime of his career.

Joe Cole will never walk alone, alone

While I'm bummed to see Joe Cole, one of my favorite Chelsea players, leave to go to Liverpool, I'm excited to see what he can bring to Anfield.

After leaving Chelsea three weeks ago as a free transfer, Cole is primed to sign with Liverpool pending a physical.

Of the Big Four, Liverpool is my second favorite (mostly because of Steven Gerrard), slightly ahead of Arsenal (for no real reason). It was probably time for Cole to get a fresh start with a new club anyways. He's a big time player, who is supremely talented but he's also very injury-prone.

Here's hoping his career gets back on track and Liverpool wakes up from last season's debacle.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Lingering thoughts from the World Cup: Replay is Good

The beautiful game’s time for a major overhaul has come. The 2010 South Africa World Cup showed how far the advances in technology have come with the ESPN camera angles and how much of a need there is for technology to improve the game because there were far too many “big decision” calls that were missed.

One of the most laughable and outrageous stories I saw on a day before the World Cup final was that there had been a study conducted of the 62 prior games in the tournament by the FIFA referees’ committee stated that referees in the World Cup got their decisions right at just over 96 percent of the time. That figure may be correct, but when too many of the biggest decisions throughout the tournament are missed – as the United States fans know via Koman Coulibaly’s terrible no-goal call in the Slovenia match – than something needs to be drastically changed and fixed.

Federation International Football Association president Sepp Blatter has long been opposed to using replay technology and until his stance softens suffice to say it will take a new president or governing board to overrule him on the issue. We may just be approaching that time as significant figures in the game like world-renowned soccer coaches Guus Hiddink and Arsene Wenger have been highly critical of his stance calling for his resignation if the technology is not quickly instituted into the game, and the response from the World Cup itself was that replay’s time has come.

To debunk Blatter’s argument, which for all intents and purposes represents FIFA’s stance, it’s important to look at his point of view, which has five primary components.

First of all, Blatter wants the human element to remain the deciding factor for decisions made in the game. According to Blatter, it’s often the case that even after slow-motion replay 10 different experts could come up with 10 different opinions on what the decision should have been.

The second and third arguments somewhat tie in together – the universality of the game and also the financial aspect.

Pertaining to the universality of the game, Blatter believes one of FIFA’s main objectives is to protect the game so that it is played in the same way no matter where you are in the world. From a small teenage game on the North Shore of Boston to the professional players they see playing on TV in the English Premier League, Blatter believes all facets of the game should be the same.

And because Blatter believes so much in the universality of the game, the financial aspect of implementing replay would be gargantuan. He believes both the experiments in terms of finding the appropriate replay for football/soccer and its application on a global scale would be too costly stating that some of the highest matches from around the world at the professional level are not even televised, so why should they be televised.

Four and five are also tied into together, the extended use of technology and the nature of the game. In Blatter’s mind should these matches start using video replay for goal line decisions than all the decisions of the match would begin to be called into question, something that would break up the nature of the game, which is a constant rhythm and flow. Stopping every two minutes would break-up the dynamic of associated football and potentially deny teams opportunities to score.

There is some merit to Blatter’s position especially where he stands on the extended use of technology and how it would affect the ebb and flow or as he described “nature of the game.” However, each of the rest of his points have major flaws in my opinion.

To first counter point FIFA and Blatter, I’ll lay out my own idea for what should be the start of the process of involving replay technology, which is very simple process:

Step 1: Use five referees on the field as Union of European Football Associations experimented with during its Europa League tournament last season. The final two officials would be goal line officials with the power to alert the head referee for questionable calls in the box and goal-line decisions that need to be reviewed or flat out called. This would hopefully help keep the human element of the game involved as much as possible at the forefront.

Step 2: Find the best replay technology whether it be what ESPN used during the World Cup for its all-access every camera angles to show off-sides and other replays or a system similar to the Hawk-eye technology Tennis uses during its Grand Slam tournament. Once the application is available use the technology to use review every goal or near miss by a certified official up in a booth that is connected via headset to the referees on the field. The referee in the booth would have the power to over-rule goals via missed off-sides calls, award goals that completely crossed the line that were missed on the field, and essentially look at the entire spectrum of what was going prior to the goal or no-goal to award free kicks or penalty kicks that may have been missed. All this could be done in a matter of seconds without disrupting the flow of the game, especially after goals were scored where there are generally long celebrations.

There obviously need to be some tinkering with my proposed system, but it’s a better system than what FIFA has in place currently and I trust that when enough smart people were put into the same room together to conference over a period of a couple of days they would come up with a reasonable and rational decision.

As I’ve said earlier it’s time for soccer to climb out of the dark ages because replay technology has surpassed the human element on goal-line decisions and these are calls that can be easily fixed to avoid the controversy that was put into such a public spectacle this past South Africa World Cup.

Going right down the line here were a few of the major decisions that were missed: as previously mentioned the U.S.’s goal vs. Slovenia that was disallowed for no apparent reason, the U.S. goal vs. Algeria that was incorrectly disallowed, the goal for England vs. Germany that was not seen despite the fact that both the head referee and linesman were in the correct positions, the Carlos Tevez goal for Argentina that was two yards clearly off-sides, the David Villa goal for Spain vs. Portugal that was allowed although he was off-sides, the Nelson Valdez goal for Paraguay vs. Spain that was incorrectly disallowed for off-sides, and on and on. It wasn’t pretty.

You look at the other major professional sports in the United States and each one has some version of limited replay that has improved each sport without hurting quality of the game on the field. The other common theme is somewhat unfortunate in that each of these leagues were responsive rather proactive about improving their sports, and by that I mean it took several big controversies involved with their officiating to realize there was a problem that was easily correctable.

In the National Football League where there are six officials on the field during games it essentially took an entire season of atrocious and game-changing calls by Phil Luckett in 1998 (most notably the coin toss incident between Pittsburgh and Detroit on Thanksgiving) to finally institute replay in the NFL. Now there are two challenges for each team and booth replays inside the final two minutes of each half.

In Major League Baseball where each city’s ballpark has its own unique configurations, it took nearly half a season’s worth of several obviously missed home run calls for commissioner Bud Selig to wake up to the fact his sport too needed replay of which implemented in August of 2008 for home run calls.

Looking at basketball and tennis as well, both sports have video replay to determine split-second decisions that are essentially impossible for the human eye to detect 100 percent foolproof without help. They make the sport better by getting calls right, which is what everyone involved from the players to coaches to ownership and fans all want.

You look these sports and they provide precedent for FIFA to implement a video replay technology that will remove the black-eye football/soccer suffered in WC 2010.

Blatter’s argument that 10 experts could at a replay and come up with 10 different decisions really is hog’s wash. The technology has advanced with high definition and other elements to make replays quite clear. The only two people on the earth that missed Frank Lampard’s goal for England vs. Germany were the head referee and the side official, and that goal could have been given in two seconds simply by someone in a booth talking to the head official and telling him he had missed the call.

Blatter’s argument that the universality of the game is not upheld worldwide from the most basic games to the biggest professional matches if replay were implanted only at the professional level also does not hold water. Referees already use technology at the professional level communicating with head sets, and speaking as a certified United State Soccer Federation certified official I can state I have never used a head set for any match that I have been a part of from the head official to the linesman.

And lastly Blatter’s issue of money to implement replay for all these games at the professional level is utterly absurd. This is coming from the same guy that said FIFA would not put two extra officials on the field at the same time because they would save $500 per official.

Football/soccer is big business; in fact it is the biggest sport in the world by a long shot. Just look at what ESPN paid for the rights to broadcast four tournaments – the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, the 2013 Confederations Cup, and the 2011 Women’s World Cup – a cool $425 million, and that’s just in the United States. Think about all the other countries that had to buy broadcasting rights, think about all the sponsorships that were sold, think about all the merchandising, ticket sales, and so on and so forth. I’m no marketing genius or businessman extraordinaire, but it doesn’t take much to understand tens billions of dollars are made through the game each year and even more so on World Cup years, so don’t come crying to me about replay technology – it’s a small expense to make the game better.

One of the biggest principles in the FIFA Laws of the Game is Law 18 common sense, essentially using good or sound judgement with the combination of life’s experiences and instructional training to consistently produce expected outcomes on the field of play.

So here’s a little common sense, replay is good, replay is right, replay works, replay cuts through and captures the essence of what has actually happened and replay will save FIFA and football/soccer one major hassle.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Henry on Jimmy Fallon tonight

Fresh off his press conference with the New York Red Bulls this afternoon, Thierry Henry will be a guest on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon this evening (12:30 a.m. EST, NBC).

As if you needed anymore reason to tune in, Jennifer Love Hewitt is also on the show and she looked smoking the other night on Jay Leno. So yeah, check it out.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

new FIFA rankings, as predictable as you like

With the 2010 World Cup just wrapping up last weekend, FIFA weighed in today with its latest rankings: 1) Spain, 2) Netherlands, 3) Brazil, 4) Germany and 5) Argentina.

The US moved up one spot to 13th, the highest position for them since October 2009 when they were 11th.

The rest of the top 10: 6) Uruguay, 7) England, 8) Portugal, 9) Egypt and 10) Chile. Ironically, most said the Egyptians were the best African team but they failed to qualify for South Africa.

Chile rose eight places. New Zealand made the biggest jump, climbing 24 spots to 54th.

Italy, the 2006 World Cup champion, dropped six places to 11th and France fell 12 spots to 21st. Both were eliminated in the first round.

Not a surprise at all

If you watched the 2010 World Cup and wondered why there was all the fuss about Spanish forward Fernando Torres, hopefully today's news will clear some things up.

Torres had a miserable tournament, ultimately getting benched and leaving the final with an injury that has now been diagnosed as a ruptured thigh muscle in his left leg.

It turns out that Spain didn't even need Torres which is a shame because you have to believe us when we tell you this guy is one of the best strikers in the world. Watching him play for Liverpool is one of my favorite parts about the EPL.

Head of Sports Science and Medicine Peter Brukner told the club's official website: "The initial assessment was he had a mild adductor tear and the Spanish medial staff didn't consider it to be too serious at the time.

"He had an MRI scan yesterday [Tuesday] which confirmed a small tear. He should be able to resume training within two to three weeks and be able to play again within three to four weeks."

Boss Roy Hodgson, meanwhile, is taking encouragement from the image of Torres wearing a Liverpool scarf after the World Cup victory.

"As Liverpool manager, I take great pride in the fact that two of our players can call themselves World Cup winners this summer," he said.

"Unfortunately, one team had to lose that final and, while my commiserations go out to the Dutch lads, I have to say congratulations to Fernando and Pepe (Reina). Winning the World Cup is the ultimate honour any player can have in international football and you could see what it meant to both players as soon as the celebrations started.

"I think it's safe to say the pictures of Fernando in the dressing room with the World Cup certainly went down well with our fans but the club can be proud of all the players who went away to the World Cup.

"To have four players reach the final is an incredible achievement and I look forward to working with them when they return to Melwood after their holidays."

Ironically the opening day of the 2010-2011 EPL season is exactly one month from today: Saturday, August 14 (really). The world needs a healthy Torres, we missed out on that for the past month so hopefully he can fully recover for another incredible club season.

I'm not enough of a fanboy to know the reason but maybe Torres should go back to the blond hair. I don't think the dark shade suits him well.

Good news for bozo lovers

After such a great start to the 2010 World Cup, Argentina completely unraveled in the quarterfinals against Germany but that's besides the point.

As we said he would, Diego Maradona proved to be by far, the most entertaining soccer coach in not only the tournament but the world. Therefore, I'm thrilled to see that the Argentian Football Association feels the same way. They are set to offer Maradona a four-year contract that will keep him around until the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

AFA president Julio Grondona will meet with Maradona next week to offer him the chance to guide his nation to the Brazil 2014 World Cup after the AFA executive committee determined he remains the right man to command the national team after a respectable showing at the World Cup in South Africa.

Maradona had little coaching experience before taking Argentina on a roller-coaster ride to World Cup qualification. Few gave him any chance of turning his undoubtedly high-quality squad into World Cup contenders but they impressed on their way to the quarter-finals before being humbled 4-0 by Germany.

Grondona intends to meet with Maradona no later than next Wednesday to discuss the contract extension. Maradona said after his side's exit that he would consult his family and the Argentina players before deciding whether he intended to stay on.

Jose Mourinho is the only other manager on the same planet as Maradona in terms of sheer entertainment value. Clearly, Diego has a long ways to go to reach the Special One's coaching ability but this would be a start.

Pulling a Beckham

Huge news today for MLS as Thierry Henry officially signed with the New York Red Bulls. It was a not so well disguised rumor that has pretty much been a certainty for months now.

Why should you care? Well not to get into personal anecdotes but I need to tell one; when I was studying in London during the spring of 2005 (5 years ago, YIKES), Henry was at his peak with Arsenal. I got into Chelsea more but at the time, the Frenchman was one of the greatest goal-scorers I've ever seen. I'll let this YouTube do most of the talking but the best way I would describe Henry in his prime is smooth. He could do it all: run, shoot, pass, make incredible moves.

In short, he was a joy to watch and while he's pretty much washed up at 32-years-old, there's no reason he can't have a few productive seasons in MLS.

"This marks an exciting new chapter in my career and life," Henry said. "It is an honour to play for the New York Red Bulls. I am fully aware of the team's history and my sole goal during my time here is to help win the club its first championship. Knowing Red Bull's significant commitment to soccer locally and internationally, I am confident that my team-mates and I will succeed."

The 32-year-old is France's all-time record goalscorer having scored 51 times for les Bleus and he also broke Ian Wright's record for Arsenal, scoring 226 goals between 1999 and 2007 as he cemented his reputation as one of the finest players in world football.

Henry was an integral member of the Arsenal side that went the season unbeaten in 2003-04 and won two league titles and three FA Cups during his time in North London. He was also named Footballer of the Year on three separate occasions.

Henry joined Barcelona in the summer of 2007 and helped the club secure the treble in 2009 when they defeated Manchester United in the final of the Champions League, scoring 25 goals in all competitions for the Catalans. However, last season he struggled to win a place in Pep Guardiola's side, making just 15 league starts as Barca retained the Spanish league title.

"It is without question that Thierry Henry is one of the most successful and recognisable soccer players over the past 15 years," Dietmar Beiersdorfer, head of Red Bull Global Soccer, said. "We are thrilled that Thierry has decided to come to New York to help the Red Bulls compete for championships this year and for years to come. His international pedigree is second to none and he is a proven winner."

Henry now opens a new chapter in his career by moving to MLS and will be presented as a Red Bulls player in a press conference on July 15. When his international transfer certificate is safely received, Henry will be able to make his debut against Arsenal's bitter rivals, Tottenham, in a friendly fixture on July 22.

Like when David Beckham signed with the LA Galaxy, this will bring a buzz to the league and it will make naysayers like me pay attention at least for a little while.

Bonus points to the creator of this video for using the song from Green Street Hooligans in the second half of the highlights, such a sick tune.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Like Germany, this Dutch team is built to last

By now, we've all had over a day to digest the results of the 2010 World Cup final between Netherlands and Spain which the Spanish won 1-0 in extra time. While we can agree the best team won, the lasting image of the Dutch beating down (literally) the Spanish is an unfair one even though that's how the last match went down.

Clockwork Oranje were one of the most exciting teams to watch and it's a shame that their coaching staff felt their best chance to beat Spain was to play them (overly) physical. You're never going to win when you pile up nine cards so in many ways, it's a miracle that Netherlands hung around for as long as they did. Once they went down to 10 men, you had a feeling it was over. Thankfully, Iniesta scored a beauty of a goal and this Cup (between two great soccer powers that had never won it before) was decided without PKs.

It will be another long four years for the Dutch until the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. They've been in three finals (1974, 1978, 2010) but they have yet to raise soccer's most famous trophy. Still, this is a team brimming with younger talent that should be right near the top the next time around. I picked them to win it all going into South Africa and while that didn't come true, I was happy to see Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Co. provide countless thrills to their orange-clad fans.

Netherlands won Group E and were actually unbeaten going into the final against Spain so this wasn't a fluke by any means. Their win over Brazil was one of the greatest victories in their country's rich soccer history. Look out for the Dutch in Euro 2012 and they'll be loaded in 2014, don't forget this team.


Best Moment: Going up 3-1 on Robben's header vs. Uruguay, booking their trip to the final against Uruguay. It was a completely random moment of brilliance from a player known for one move and one foot.

Worst Moment: John Heitinga's red card against Spain in the 109th minute was the moment the momentum completely swung to the Spanish. With so many rash challenges all game, the Dutch were living on a razor's edge as Shimer said while we watched it. Still a bummer that they got a red card but it was completely predictable given the dumb style they were employing.

Best Result: The 2-1 win over Brazil in the quarterfinals was not only one of the signature results of the tournament, as I alluded to before it was one of the greatest wins in Netherlands' rich soccer history. They were down 1-0 in the 10th minute and at that point, who would have expected to see Brazil fold and not Netherlands? An awesome game that deserves major props.

Worst Result: The biggest layup we've had in the entire tournament. Losing to the Spanish will hurt for a long, long time. The Dutch can beat the Spanish when they're at their best. Robben had two great chances that he couldn't bury against Iker Casillas and the match looked destined for penalty kicks before Heitinga's silly red card.

Final Tally: Second Place - 6 wins, 1 loss, 12 goals scored, 6 goals allowed.

Best Player: Two players from Netherlands stood out above the rest: Robben and Sneijder. Not only did they score the big goals but they were dangerous every time they touched the ball. Robben really played well in the final and it's a shame that he couldn't put a goal or two in. As Shimer said, Sneijder slowed down in the last few matches but scoring five goals from center midfield is ridiculous in this level of competition. Not to mention how many dirty passes Sneijder sprayed all around the park. Just a complete stud and as Shimer and I said the other night, he's a certified lock to win the FIFA player of the year in December, you can book that.

Worst Player: Midfielder Mark Van Bommel epitomized why the Netherlands failed in the final. He was out of control every time you saw him near the ball and that seemed to seep over to his more talented and steady teammates. He's 33-years-old so it's impressive that he was still out there for such a good team but I won't be sad to see him gone from this squad in the near future.

We are the Champions

The only rain falling in Spain at the moment is golden tears of joy as the fiesta will probably continue throughout the rest of 2010 after La Furia Roja won Espania's first ever World Cup Sunday.

I really don't think it was that much of a shocker that Spain was the 2010 World Cup, and if you read my preview for the tournament just days before it began you would have seen that I gave you the correct winner, both correct final teams, and three of four correct semifinalist — yes I won my ESNP bracket challenge too with 99.6 percent of the points at stake.

Anyway getting back to Spain, back in the 2002 World Cup, Portugal were in the midst of their so called "golden generation" with Luis Figo and Rui Costa leading the charge because earlier in their youth careers they had led the U-21 or U17 Portuguese team to a world title and because Portugal hand never won a World Cup Figo, Costa, and company were supposed to deliver the Jules Rimet Trophy in 2002. However, that team never lived up to expectations as the U.S. actually knocked them off in the group stage round. 

I bring that point up because I don't recall ever hearing anyone talk about this generation of Spanish players as the country's golden generation. For the better part of four years since the start of qualification for the 2008 Euro championship, Spain has been the best team in the world with an absolutely loaded roster - Xavi, Iniesta, Fernando Torres, David Villa, Xabi Alonso, Sergio Busquets, Carlos Puyol, Gerard Pique, Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos and other players like Cesc Fabregas, David Silva, Fernando Llorente and Pepe Reina waiting at a moment's notice off the bench. 

They cemented that status as the FIFA No. 1 ranked team with a commanding performance at Euro 08 easily winning the tournament title then going on a 35 match unbeaten run that ended to the U.S. at the Confederations Cup last summer in the semifinals. Spain and Brazil were practically deadlocked as the favorites heading into South Africa, and really except for one minor slip up against Switzerland in the first match of the tournament were the best team from start to finish. Even in defeat, Spain completely controlled the match with the Swiss and really it took a moment of sheer luck to crack goal. 

After that opening loss, Spain never trailed the rest of the tournament grinding out results, waiting patiently for the right moment to strike six straight victories including four straight 1-0 wins in the knockout round to lift the Jules Rimet Trophy for the first time in the country's history. 

Where they won the tournament was through the middle - Xavi, Pique, Puyol, Iniesta, Alonso. If you read any of the ESPNsoccernet recaps, you would see in their sidebars some really insightful stats like time of possession. Spain absolutely radiated in this category as teams truly feared going forward too far and leaving themselves vulnerable to Villa, Iniesta, and Pedro. 

For the tournament Spain controlled 60.9 percent of possession, the first team ever to eclipse 60 percent - by far the most telling stat. Looking at the final, and not surprising considering the last stat, Spain owned 59.3 percent of the touches - the highest ever by a team in the final since the stat was tracked in 1966. 

And so you see the road map that Vincente Del Bosque followed to drive Espania to its first even World Cup.


Best Moment: Pretty simple, there are two — when Andres Iniesta struck the latest game-winner ever in the 116th minute of the game, which led to FIFA president Sepp Blatter handing the Jules Rimet Trophy to Spanish captain Iker Casillas setting off fireworks and a flow of confetti as well as the biggest fiesta ever in the history of the Iberia Peninsula.

Worst Moment: There weren't many, maybe just this one when Gelson Fernandes scored in the 52nd minute to give Switzerland a 1-0 win over Espania in the opening game.

Best Result: Again very simple, the 1-0 win over the Netherlands in the World Cup final.

Worst Result: The 1-0 loss to Switzerland.

Final Tally: World Champions — 6 wins, 1 loss, 8 goals scored (fewest ever for a champion by 3 goals), 2 goals conceded

Worst Player: Can't pick anyone, this was a real team effort and there were no letups, not even in the lone loss to Switzerland, which took a couple of lucky bounces.

Best Player: For me David Villa was the best player scoring five goals (tied for the tournament lead) and one assist. However, Iker Casillas showed especially later in the tournament why I believe he is the best goal keeper in the world by making great save after great save throughout the knockout round. He got better, more comfortable, and certainly more clutch as the tournament progressed and was voted the World Cup's top keeper. Back to Villa though, the soon-to-be Barcelona striker scored five of the team's first six goals in the tournament, four of which were game-winners and none of which were cheapies. He was simply brilliant in the left-forward position and pretty much unstoppable out there. When he was forced to go in the middle to replace Fernando Torres, he did not perform as well. Still his presence opened things up for his teammates as Spain that struggled to score goals, but were efficient when they did so.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Just call him the Golden Baller

Class on the field and class off of it, Diego Forlan exudes it.

Going into the World Cup final Sunday four players had separated themselves from the rest in terms of their play throughout the tournament and were the only real contenders for the Golden Ball or the best player in the World Cup - David Villa, Wesley Sneijder, Bastian Schweinsteiger, and Diego Forlan. I also thought the player from the winning team in the final would take home the Golden Ball.

However, I commend the media and voters for selecting Forlan a player that scored five scintillating goals and had one assist while helping this not so well known Uruguayan team, the second smallest country in the tournament with a population of around 3.2 million people, win Group A.

In the process Uruguay got two notable scalps, they're tie with France in the opening match helped send that team into turmoil before going home in complete disgrace, and they're win over South Africa in the second match ultimately meant that for the first time in the history of the World Cup the host nation would not advance past group stage into the knockout round. Once into the knockout round, Uruguay found themselves in the most favorable draw to get the semifinals playing South Korea in the round of 16 match before having to take on Ghana in the quarterfinals. Forlan and company took care of business in both matches and even though they would fall short against the Netherlands in the semis and Germany in the third-place game, 3-2 both times, Uruguay had its best finish in the World Cup since 1970 when Forlan's father was playing for La Celeste.

In fact Uruguay are the forgotten world soccer power. Having won two of the first four World Cups in 1930 and 1950, more recently failed to qualify in 2006, ranked 26th in 2002 failing to get past the group stage, and also failed to qualify in 1998 and 1994. Not exactly great credentials.

Like his home country, this tournament was all about redemption for Forlan. A famous flop at Manchester United after coming over from Independiente in Argentina, it took Forlan eight months to score his first goal for the club as fans became restless with his performance. He would go on to score several big goals there, but it was not until he moved to Spain where he became a household name leading La Liga with 25 goals at Villarreal before he moved on to his most recent team Atletico Madrid.

But enough about his biography, Forlan for me was one of the most pleasurable players to watch in this tournament. He never looks like he's going to do much, but all of the sudden he will make a deft-cutback move, take one more touch and then unleash his deadly accurate shot from either foot. Getting better as the tournament progressed, Forlan scored in each of Uruguay's last three games in the knockout round, all of which were world class.

Unselfish as well, Forlan may have only had one assist, but his ability to pick out teammates on free kick or switch the point of attack to people like striking partner Luis Suarzo was incredible all tournament long. He was also one of the few in the tournament to have figured out the Jabulani Adidas ball scoring one of the most memorable free kicks against Ghana, the only goal for Uruguay in regulation.

I think going back to the fact that Forlan continued to perform and may have even gotten better as his opponents got better speaks to why the voters selected him.

Neither Sneijder nor Villa exemplified themselves late in the tournament. Sneijder did score two in the quaters against Brazil - probably his crowning moment in the tournament - and then one more against Uruguay in the semis off a deflection, but in the final he was could not inflict his will on the game as Spain essentially shut him down with Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets marking him throughout. Villa also fell off track because his coach Vincente Del Bosque had to put him into Fernando Torres's center forward position with Torres failing to live up to expectations. Villa simply just does not play as well in the middle as a smaller player often playing against giant center defenders as opposed to when he is slotted on the wing, and he did not score another goal after the switch of positions.

And lastly no team depended on one player more than Uruguay depended on Forlan to score goals and be "the guy." Sneijder had Robben, Kuyt, Van Persie and even both Elia and Van der Vaart off the bench to act as side kicks. Villa had Xavi, Iniesta, Pedro, Torres, Puyol, Pique, Alonso, and Casillas all to protect him. Spain and the Netherlands and even Germany were all vastly more talented than Uruguay, who did also have Suarez and a few other decent talents, but again Forlan was the marked and still came through.

Taking a look at Forlan's work, I think you will see why I think the voters chose "wisely."

Saturday, July 10, 2010

This won't be the last that you hear of this German team

So here's where you get to hear me boast for a few minutes about my heritage - der Deutschland. I think a lot of people that were new to watching the World Cup were quite impressed and quickly became fans of this German team. Under coach Joachim Low the Germans scored more goals than any other team in the tournament by a long shot with 16, the next closest team is the Netherlands with 12 to date and just the final to play (by the not to be negative, but don't expect a high scoring match in the final, they typically aren't and Spain doesn't concede many just two so far).

Low built off of what the Germans accomplished under Jurgen Klinsmann as the hosts in 2006 and although they finished in third place for a second straight World Cup, realistically they were the second best team in this tournament behind the team that beat them in the semifinals. They encompassed several different philosophies, the Brazilian flow, the Italian defending, and the English pace and movement for the most attractive style of football in this tournament.

A young squad people asked how Germany would cope without captain Michael Ballack, who suffered an ankle in injury in the FA Cup Final vs. Portsmouth, and I had said all along that Bastian Schweinsteiger would take his spot and do an even better job. I think my prediction came to fruition as Schweiny is one of two Germans up for the Golden Ball as the best player of the tournament. He probably won't win it because the winner of the award almost always comes out of the final, so look for either David Villa or Wesley Sneijder to take home that award, but Schweinsteiger was the best all-around player in this tournament.

Think about this by the way of the primary starters from this German team Schweinsteiger is 25, Thomas Muller is 20, Sami Khedira is 23, Manuel Neuer is 24 and the guy that is the real German No. 1 Rene Adler is just 25, Jerome Boateng is 21, Mesut Ozil is 21, Lukas Podolski is 25, Per Mertesacker is 25, and Philipp Lahm is 26. Just Miroslav Klose (32) and Arne Friedrich (31) probably won't be back for Euro 2012 or the Brazil World Cup 2014. In two year's time I fully expect this German team to be as dominant as Spain was over the past four years, and realistically Germany has the opportunity to win two or three big FIFA tournaments with this collection of talent.


Best Moment: Man there were a bunch, Mesut Ozil's goal vs. Ghana to win Group D was a stunner. The absolute dismantling of England in the round of 16 4-1 was a comprehensive result making critics world wide say England simply are over-rated. But I have to say the 4-0 win over Argentina was the best. I quite simply hate Argentina and when people were calling them the favorites after they wiped out a bunch of nobodies and got some help vs. Mexico, I wanted to vomit, so I thoroughly enjoyed when Germany took them apart piece by piece and showed the Albiceleste to be the frauds they typically have been over the past three or four World Cups.

Worst Moment: I know you want me to say Carlos Puyol's goal for Spain in the semifinal, which knocked them out of the final, but that's too easy. Germany did not deserve to win that match because they weren't the best team that day, but I would have liked to have seen that at full capacity. Thomas Muller was out because the referee in the previous game gave him one of the worst yellow cards I have ever seen for a deliberate hand ball, terrible, terrible decision. He was a vital part to how the Germans wanted to play and so I will say that decision by the referee was the worst moment.

Best Result: Already said it, the 4-0 drubbing of Argentina, I enjoyed every second of it from Muller's opening goal in the third minute to Klose's closer and likely last goal ever for Germany giving him 14 World Cup goals all-time and place him second tied with another German great Gerd Muller behind only Brazil's Ronaldo (15 WC goals).

Worst Result: The Serbia stunner in Group D was bad and an upset, but Germany were in this tournament to win it and played that way unlike some other teams, so getting knocked out by Spain for the second consecutive tournament was a tough pill to swallow.

Final Tally: Third Place - 5 wins, 2 losses, 16 goals scored, 5 goals allowed.

Best Player: Thomas Muller had five goals and three assists, which currently leads a group of four players tied with five goals for the Golden Boot because he also has three assists, so he will be the young player of the tournament. Mesut Ozil had a goal and three assists and is the other player from Germany up for the Golden Ball.

But Bastian Schweinsteiger as I said before was the best all-around player in this tournament, and I don't think there is any real debate about it. He completely made the Germans go on offense with three assists of his own, and was just incredible as well coming back to disrupt what other teams tried to do through the middle. You can bet your ass that there will be a white German Schweinsteiger jersey in my closet after I get back from vacation and have the funds to buy one. It's a superstition of mine not to buy the jersey before the tournament, but Schweiny is my boy.